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Struggling to Prioritize Your Research? This Will Help [+ Template]

When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Read on about how to get more done and keep your stakeholders happy.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Allison Corr

One of the most monumental moments in my career was when my colleagues developed a strong appetite for user research. It felt like overnight I went from desperately trying to be involved in everyone's plan and following them around, whispering, "We should do research first," to being the most popular person in the office.

I was thrilled. People cared about talking to users rather than relying on gut feelings and wanted to put ideas in front of participants before running forward with them. What more could a user researcher want?

But I realized something very quickly. Although I gained back time from trying to prove the value of user research, my schedule got jam-packed. I went from having a few projects to getting an influx of requests.

And of course when this happened, I didn't want to lose momentum. Turning colleagues down once I had finally got their buy-in seemed reckless. So I tried to do everything.

The cost of prioritizing everything

I failed miserably. After working many nights and weekends to try to keep up and sacrificing my development and learning, I heard a quote by Karen Martin that changed my life:

"When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority."

It isn't an earth-shattering quote, and once I heard it, I thought about how obvious it was. But it shook me out of my current state.

By trying to do and prioritize everything, not only was I hurting myself, but I was doing my colleagues a disservice. I mixed up prototypes, got easily frustrated, and constantly hit walls when trying to be creative. This wasn't how I wanted to research, so I prioritized my work.

Defining different types of work and impact levels

Not all projects, initiatives, and tasks are created equally. Different types and levels of work are inherent in our roles. So when I started to prioritize, I went at it trying to categorize everything the same and prioritize based on that.

Treating all work the same became impossible. I had first to distinguish my different types of work and then use that information to create other prioritization methods.

✔ Differentiating my work

To identify the different types of work, I went through my work from the past six months and did some affinity diagramming (we researchers can affinity diagram anything).

As a result, I found trends in the type of work I was doing:

  • Research projects, which spanned from generative to evaluative research and typically the end-to-end process unless I have a lower level of support

  • Initiatives, such as cross-departmental working groups, to try to understand topics like retention. These initiatives usually get broken down into separate research projects

  • Meetings, which included any meetings outside of my immediate team

  • Thinking time, which gives me space to think through a project or problem

  • Learning and development time, which is about me cultivating my skills or upleveling

  • Team time, which included any team meetings or events such as team building

  • Community time, such as speaking at an event or networking

I couldn't believe how many types of work I was doing. I was trying to prioritize them as if they were completely the same—no wonder I struggled! There is a vast difference between meetings versus thinking time or research projects.

I used this list to help me start prioritizing through impact levels.

✔ Defining impact levels

As noted above, not every piece of work is created equally and has the same type of impact.

A significant part of my prioritization process was identifying the level of impact something would have. However, I struggled again to identify work within a low, medium, or high impact. For example, checking my emails might be super low impact and used as a distraction, but it could also have a high impact if I had to recruit users.

So, I ventured forward to define different impact levels:

  • Myself

  • Internal team (ex: user research team)

  • Moving a research project forward

  • Individual stakeholder

  • Product team

  • Cross-departmental or cross-functional

  • Organizational

  • Community (ex: outside the organization)

Once I created these levels, it was easier for me to understand the different work types and what levels of impact they could have.

✔ Finding a prioritization framework

I don't particularly love prioritization because I want to do everything now (or yesterday). So based on this, I knew I wouldn't develop a framework and should draw inspiration from others.

In the past, I used the RICE model to help me prioritize research projects. The RICE model has four different factors:

  • Reach is how many people your work will reach

  • Impact is to what level your work will impact

  • Confidence is how confident you are that your work will reach and influence the level to which you think

  • Effort is how much time and energy your work will take

This prioritization technique has always been relatively straightforward. And I love simplicity when it comes to doing something I hate doing.

So I took the RICE model and modified it slightly to be the IEE model, including:

  • Impact of my work, in terms of the level of impact I outlined above

  • Effort of my work, in terms of the time and energy the work would take

  • Enjoyment of the work, in terms of how much I enjoyed a given piece of work, because I work faster on things I enjoy

Using this framework, I could list my work pieces, assign an impact level to them, and plot them on a chart. With this, I clearly represented what I needed to focus on in a given time period.

Steps to prioritize your work (+ a template)

Once I had defined the types of work I was doing and the impact levels, it became easier to prioritize my work, and every week, I went through several steps to ensure I was doing the most impactful work I could be.


✔ Identify your types of work

Feel free to use the above categories, but I recommend going through your past six months to see what work you are most involved in. Some of the above categories might not be as relevant to your organization!

✔ Define your impact levels

Figure out the different levels of impact you have had at your organization. This will help with mapping out a prioritization.

✔ Choose a cadence

I don't go through these steps every single day, but I like to start each month with a high-level overview of all the information I have and then dive deeper weekly.

✔ Know your energy levels

I also have learned when I excel at doing different types of work. If I need to write a report, I must do that before lunchtime. Lower impact and lower effort work are best for me toward the end of the day when my brain is less creative.


Identify the upcoming work you have across the next quarter or month and:

  • Identify the work type

  • Look at the impact level

  • Determine the effort level

  • Decide on your level of enjoyment

  • Include the timeline, if applicable

Once you have this in mind, you can stick with the spreadsheet or plot it onto a graph. I use this to align with my manager, ensuring I am not missing anything and thinking about impact correctly. When I first showed my manager this tracking, he was thrilled because it made it much easier for him to help me.


Since I can get overwhelmed by the amount of context-switching researchers experience, I also think about my work weekly. So every week, I look at my work, reviewing the impact level, effort level, enjoyment, and timeline.

✔ Go for high-impact

The work that has the highest impact, lowest effort level, and most critical timeline, I prioritize first. Then I go through the additional work, considering all the different factors.

Using this, I block time on my calendar with the work I will do and when. This method helps save me from meetings that might creep in over the week and takes the cognitive load off of choosing what I should be doing next. I know what work I will do when a particular time comes along.

✔ Optimize low-impact tasks

Also, look at places you could potentially optimize mundane or low-impact tasks. For example, if colleagues constantly ask the same questions, can you create a user research FAQ to send? Or scheduling participants is a huge pain point, so could you ask for a low-cost tool or create recruitment templates?

Seeing all your low-impact work can help you develop solutions to optimize!

By chunking my calendar, knowing where I needed to focus, and understanding my energy levels, I went from feeling overwhelmed and scattered to having control of my work. I used to jump between many tasks because everything felt equally essential and urgent.

Now, I better understand what I need to do in a given moment and can focus on just that task because I know it has a high impact, and I also know I have put space in my calendar for the other work I have to do.

Wrapping it up

Overall, ensuring we do impactful work is one of the top pain points of researchers, especially when we finally get the momentum going at an organization. Take the time to prioritize, and you will find you’re doing your best work!

Grab a copy of our UX Research Prioritization Template

Easily record your list of projects/initiatives and organize it by work type, impact level, effort level, and enjoyment level with this grab-and-go template.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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